Things I Learned at Art School is a new series featuring artists discussing how they do what they do and know what they know. In our first instalment, Megan Dunn talks to photographer Edith Amituanai about Mean Girls and getting an MNZM for services to photography and community.
Edith Amituanai is an Auckland-born first generation Samoan photographer who lives and works in Ranui. In 2007 when she was the inaugural recipient of the Marti Friedlander Photographic Award, Friedlander herself praised Amituanai’s ability to “portray people and places that reveal New Zealanders in all their diversity.”
This year, Amituanai was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to photography and community. She works for Ranui Action Project and the youth trust organisation Ranui 135 and is acclaimed for her photographs of Samoan and other diasporic communities in Aotearoa.
What did you learn at art school?
I always knew I went to art school to say something and that I came from a certain world… a New Zealand-born Samoan West Auckland world. I knew I had interesting ideas and working in reception was not cutting it. I went to art school to find out what I had to say and to hone my voice. Later, I realised that voice was in photography.
But there’s art school and then there’s art school, right? When I did my undergraduate in photography at Unitec we were allowed to get our head down and get on with it. I was allowed to develop my voice confidently. In 2009, when I completed my Masters at Elam School of Fine Arts I learned that art school is a representation of the art world, or at least of parts of it. And art school can be obsessed with trends, in thought, material, medium… I became disinterested in a lot of the popular ideas like the French Theorist Jacques Lacan, and his theory of “the other”. I remember thinking “If I get referred to as ‘the other’ one more time, I’m going to punch someone in the face.”
What was your first camera?
The first cameras I used were the SLRs (Single Lens Reflex) in the high school photography department. You bring the SLR camera up to your face and it has a tiny viewfinder. I later realised I wanted a medium-format camera. With the medium format camera, you can flip open the viewfinder and look down, so you can still have a face-to-face interaction with the person or people in the photograph. The camera has a wider frame too. And it’s squarer. I hold the camera kind of low, I’ve found. I want that everyday ordinary ‘thing’ to loom large in my viewfinder, monumental even.
Tell me about your first experiences of art?
I first got close to art through big photo books. I scoured the Unitec library for them. I was influenced by an amazing book called Pleasures and Terrors Interiors of the Domestic Comfort by Peter Galassi, then the photography curator of The Museum of Modern Art in New York. In another book, I remember seeing an image taken by Philip Lorca DiCorcia of his brother Mario staring blankly into the refrigerator. That image stuck in my mind, it was just so banal. My lecturer told me that Lorca DiCorcia had triggered a flash to go off inside the fridge door. Australian artist Tracey Moffat was also an early influence.
I love your photograph Sina to Save the World presented recently on a Wellington billboard as offsite artwork. How did the photograph come about?
In 2017, for six weeks, I was embedded at Kimi Ora Primary School in Flaxmere on a residency. I was this weird teacher aid that really didn’t do anything but hung out and taught the kids photography. At Kimi Ora school the kids play dress-up and make-believe, build forts, dig trenches… I let my camera float around so the kids could photograph one another. At the end of the project, their photographs were exhibited at Hastings Art Gallery in #KeepOnKimiOra.
Sina was wearing this Belle dress from Beauty and The Beast and she had a mask over her face. When I asked if I could photograph her, she immediately hit that pose. I said, “Are you going to say Flaxmere?” And she said, “Yeah, and the world.”
It is an incredibly empowering message for young brown girls, right? But I also ask myself, “Is that too easy? Too uncomplicated?” I guess I will always wrestle with the ethics of representation.
How do you know when a photograph works?
There’s this idea that photography – especially street photography – is easy, right? I mean hiding away with your long lens waiting for some poetic street moment. You show up and the thing that’s amazing is there. But how do you find that amazing interior designed in the seventies that hasn’t moved on from time? How do you find a kid doing street gymnastics? If they say it’s easy to find, they’re lying. It took me three years to get the photograph of Treynar on his bike in West Auckland [one of the images in the series ETA (Edith’s Talent Agency).] Initially he was incredibly suspicious of me. To push yourself into worlds and to look at them with fresh eyes is taxing and full on.
One afternoon I showed up to a park in Ranui and saw – and heard – the Switch Hittaz siren cars, decked out with twenty sirens, blasting Spanish music, the kind I might hear in the island nightclubs. Later I was able to photograph a really big siren battle and you can trust I didn’t just get there by chance. That image became the promotional image for my survey show Double Take, currently on at the Adam Art Gallery Te Pātaka Toi and I put a video of the siren battle on my Instagram too.
Tell me about a time an idea didn’t work out?
Not that long ago, I was in a lull and doubting my voice. So, I tried out a more poetic, oblique approach to subject – like the American photographer Alec Soth in Sleeping by the Mississippi. I committed to the idea all the way to the framers, but when I showed up to the gallery with the work my dealer, Anna Miles, said, “What are you doing? What is this?”
I knew exactly what she was talking about. The strength had gone. When I left the gallery I bawled my eyes out, took all my expensive work home and now it sits in the storage to remind me of that day. I’m not a subtle girl. I used to play rugby and I split my knee twice and tore my ACL before I realised I should stop. I need to go the whole way to learn the lesson.
Do you have a favourite photo of your own?
Not a favourite, but there’s an image I took when I was 16 years old with the school camera that is important to me. I walked down the road in Ranui and found these kids sitting in a bus stop, with bikes at their feet. The bus stop was graffitied. It was the 90s and there was no heavy policing of tagging. I took a black and white photograph of the kids, who were seven years old. The image had no life after high school but 20 years later I found it and put it on Instagram. It’s one of the works I’ve made that reminds me to keep going.
Last but not least, what’s it been like to receive the Order of Merit for your services to photography and community?
Amazing. To not accept it would have been incredibly cynical. I knew I couldn’t do that because really, it’s more important to other people than it is to me. Mean Girls is one of my favorite movies ever, the scene where Lindsay Lohan wins prom queen, then she breaks up the crown and gives a piece to everybody. I want to do that with the medal.
Edith Amituanai: Double Take is showing at the Adam Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki in Wellington until 14 July, 2019.
EDITH AMITUANAI: DOUBLE TAKE. VIDEO BY BUSTER MILANI